Northampton Town 1
Bradford City 3
Wells 11, 39, 52
Saturday 14 April, 2012
By Jason McKeown
In the end it has become so easy that you wondered why we’d been making such hard work of it in the first place. Bradford City’s comfortable victory at Northampton leaves the club nine points clear of the bottom two – while holding a vastly superior goal difference over both – with three games to go. Only the most freakish and unlikely set of results will see the Bantams relegated now. One more point will guarantee survival.
Job done. Just about anyway. The win at Sixfields propelled the Bantams above their hosts, to match the season-best high of 18th position. And, as the City players strolled around during the closing stages, threatening a fourth goal to cap off a memorable afternoon, your mind drifts back to the despair of that night at Crawley, and you smile because it’s all working out in the end.
Far from self-imploding, we’ve dug in deep to complete the job – and maybe, just maybe, we can start looking forward to the future with greater optimism.
City’s success in winning this afternoon was a reflection – and in some cases a verification – of what the club has got right over the past 12 months. Phil Parkinson can certainly take a great chunk of the credit, because the values, style of play and signings that he has introduced were evident throughout this win (only his 10th league success as Bantams manager). But even Peter Jackson and Archie Christie – assuming they are monitoring events – can allow themselves a wry smile, because players they brought in have delivered when the chips were down.
A stronger defence has been the most notable improvement Parkinson has instilled. Luke Oliver returned from suspension to slot alongside Jackson signing Guy Branston, with the pair acting as a brick wall to ensure there was no repeat of the familiar pattern of the hosts scoring first, which has re-occurred so often in away games over recent weeks. Parkinson buy Matt Duke kept his place despite Jon McLaughlin’s availability – a big call for the manager, given Duke’s notable nerves at Shrewsbury on Monday, but one that was proven to be well justified – and the Bantams started on the back foot, but with a resilience to withstand home pressure.
Northampton’s Aidy Boothroyd employed the sort of direct pressing football he has always been known for, but City seemed to excel at dealing with a style of play they too have produced in home games for much of this season – and once it was obvious the home team’s workrate and desire was going to be matched toe-to-toe, it was simply a matter of good players making the difference.
And City, for all the misery and underachievement, do have some very good players for this level. Craig Fagan had one of his better days – clearing an early Cobbers’ corner off his own line and linking up well with his midfield – and Kyel Reid was back on song after the understandable recent distractions in his personal life. He just ran and ran at players, beating them for skill and whipping in testing crosses. The Christie-recommended Ritchie Jones and Parkinson signing Ricky Ravenhill were the glue that held everything together in the centre, enabling the front four players to terrorise the Town defence.
Which brings us on to Nahki Wells. The find of the season, this year’s David Syers in terms of his impact from nowhere and in supporter adulation. The story goes that Jackson looked at trialists Nialle Rodney and Wells in pre-season (Wells having been recommended by Mark Ellis and David Baldwin) and ruled Rodney was the player to take on and Wells should not get a contract. Christie argued strongly to Jackson that he was making the wrong decision, and ended up signing the Bermudian for his Development Squad. That this development initiative has been quietly left to rot and be dubbed as a failure – while the first graduate Wells scores an outstanding hat trick to virtually guarantee survival – suggests a misjudgement by the club.
Wells opened the scoring for City after latching onto a terrific Fagan pass, beating a defender with clever footwork and calmly firing the ball past Neal Kitson. Six minutes before the interval, a scramble in the box led to Oliver nodding the ball into Wells’ direction – and the 21-year-old produced a stunning bicycle kick to smash the ball into the net. This guy is going to play at a higher level, and increasingly it is a question of how long City can keep hold of him.
In-between the two first half goals, it was full-blooded combat between two sides desperate to take that giant step to safety. Northampton attacked with pace to cause plenty of problems, with Michael Jacobs in particular impressing on the right. Yet Branston was once again absolutely sensational and Oliver showed no signs of rustiness, clearing anything that came his way. There has already been plenty of talk about the full circle season Branston is enjoying – a penny for Parkinson’s thoughts on whether to keep him next season would be fascinating – but Jackson’s wisdom in signing Guy last summer is belatedly being vindicated.
Northampton should have equalised at 1-0, and will be wondering how so many chances were spurned. Ben Tozer hit the underside of the bar from a few yards out; Adebayo Akinfenwa saw a half volley headed off the line by Oliver; and then at 2-0 Simon Ramsden – he and Rob Kozluk were excellent at full backs – kicked another effort off the line. City had chances beyond their two goals as well, but the Cobblers’ spirit to keep going was as commendable as it was worrying.
Sure enough they pulled a goal back early in the second half. Another scramble in the box should have seen Ravenhill head the ball away, but a misjudgement in direction caused the ball to drop straight back down into heavy traffic, with Clarke Carlisle getting free of Oliver to head home. With 38 minutes to play it was time to feel apprehensive, but within a minute the game was settled.
It was that man again, Wells, with another beautiful finish. The home defence got in a muddle clearing a long ball straight from kick off, and Nahki was able to complete his hat trick with a delicate lob over the advancing Kitson which dipped agonisingly slowly under the bar and then bounced over the line. Wells raced to embrace City supporters – earning a booking for his troubles – and an 11th goal from 34 appearances emphatically confirmed that City, for now, have that one in three goal striker they have been badly lacking since Peter Thorne left.
Today Wells’ standing moved up another notch from promising forward to important first teamer. Developed, you might say.
And although Northampton continued to attack, they suddenly lacked the conviction or energy to make life as difficult for City’s backline compared to the first half. They hit the bar again and can look back on the day knowing that – with 20 attempts at goal, hitting the woodwork twice and having three cleared off the line – they would more often than not win playing like this. But today was City’s day.
Indeed the spectre of a fourth always seemed more likely during the final 20 minutes. Wells went off to a standing ovation, with Deane Smalley making the most of his first chance in weeks to link up well with James Hanson, and Reid continuing to cause havoc every time he received possession – what a fantastic signing Kyel has proved to be. We relaxed, soaked up the limited amount of April sunshine that was still available and laughed as Northampton fans took their turn to be exasperated by a referee. And at full time the players and Parkinson came across to us to receive a brilliant reception.
We will back here next season. Probably not with quite the same personnel, though in achieving the first objective he was brought in to complete – avoiding relegation – Parkinson, who received the dreaded vote of confidence from Mark Lawn two weeks ago, will surely continue to oversee where we go next. And when the manager does come to draw up next season’s strategy during the summer, a re-run of the video from this game will serve as a worthwhile reminder of the good things in place at Valley Parade, which now must be built upon.
City: Duke, Ramsden, Branston, Oliver, Kozluk, Fagan, Ravenhill, Jones (Bullock 88), Reid (Flynn 90), Hanson, Wells (Smalley 78)
Unused Subs: McLaughlin, Syers